by Douglas Messier
China completed its Beidou satellite navigation system with a launch last week, fully standing up a rival to the American Global Positioning System (GPS), Europe’s Galileo constellation, and Russia’s GLONASS system and strengthening the nation as a space power.
A Long March 3B booster launched the 35th Beidou-3 satellite from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center on June 23. Beidou can now provide full global service with 30 active satellites.
China began developing Beidou, which is named for the Big Dipper constellation, in the 1990’s. The first launch in the series was of the BeiDou-1A satellite took place on Oct. 30, 2000.
In its 2019 Report to Congress, the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission said Beidou is a “vital component” of Beijing’s space diplomacy as the rival to GPS gains increasing acceptance around the world. [Full Report]
“China has used it as a tool of geopolitical and diplomatic competition which would deepen users’ reliance on China for space-based services, potentially at the expense of U.S. Influence,” the report stated. “After Thailand, a U.S. treaty ally, was granted access to Beidou in 2013, for instance, a Beidou expert from Wuhan University who participated in the negotiations with the Thai government claimed Beijing’s goal was to show that Beidou ‘can do anything GPS does in some areas it can do even better. If Thailand can embrace Beidou, other countries may follow, and the [United States’] . . . power in the region will be reduced.’”
China has been successfully using Beidou as part of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a broad effort to forge economic and political ties throughout Asia, Europe and Africa, the report said.
“The Nikkei Asian Review reported in August 2019 that as of late June not only had the Beidou constellation exceeded that of GPS in size, but Beidou satellites were more frequently observable than GPS satellites in 130 of 195 UN member countries and also more frequently visible in more than 100 of the 137 BRI participant countries,” the commission reported.
China has also promoted the adoption of Beidou with the Arab League. The effort has included the joint establishment of a center of excellence in Tunis to promote the satellite navigation system, the report said.
Beidou is also a significant military asset for China. The South China Morning Post reports:
Zhou Chenming, a Beijing-based military expert, said the BeiDou system would help boost China’s military capabilities.
“With our own navigation and location system that has good precision, China’s missiles, drones and other vehicles can rely on our own technology without having to worry about signal losses, and this can help [our military] to better coordinate force deployment and logistical support,” Zhou said.
The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission reports that China has used Beidou to forge military alliances.
“Following a 2013 agreement, Pakistan was the first partner country to be granted access to Beidou’s restricted high-precision signal for military use, a model for Beidou’s expansion which the New York Times reported China could extend to other BRI participants,” the document said.